Man Ray: The bright ideas of an original

by Mark Thompson

“Unconcerned but Not Indifferent” reads the gravestone epitaph of American-born artist Man Ray, who was buried in his adopted hometown, Montparnasse, Paris. The same phrase is used for the title of an exhibition of the enigmatic artist now showing at the National Art Center, Tokyo. It can be applied to the artist’s own consciousness of his legacy. An outsider who flourished as an insider of one of Europe’s most vibrant scenes, Man Ray once said he had chosen “to walk between the chasms of notoriety and oblivion.”

His ambition, however, was clear from an early age. Born Emmanual Radnitzky, he literally made a name for himself in 1911 when he signed “Man Ray” to a modernist collage of cloth scraps, gathered from the workplace of his Russian immigrant parents. Both an acknowledgment and farewell to his roots, it was also a wise branding decision, as his name stands today as one of modern art’s most recognized.

Looming large in his legacy are the groundbreaking rayographs, the iconic lips of “A l’heure de l’observatoire — Les Amoureux” and the sultry cello-motifed back of his cherished model/lover Kiki de Montparnasse. These works, though, are but drops in a deep ocean, as Man Ray was manically prolific in a wide range of media, which included photography, painting, drawing, assemblage, objet d’art, sculpture and filmmaking.

Despite his passion to create, Man Ray famously championed the superiority of ideas over artistic skills or physical objects, much like Marcel Duchamp, his long-time friend, peer and chess opponent. He was not keen on making one-of-a-kind originals; many were lost, stolen or created merely to be photographed and discarded. Unlike Duchamp, however, Man Ray eschewed the endgame of purely conceptual art. Continually recycling and refining, he would often revisit an image or concept with a new technique or approach. Take “Object to be Destroyed” (1923), a metronome to which he fixed a photo of an ex-lover’s eye. It was first published as drawing, then an object, which was lost, reconstructed, demolished and remade several times under various titles.

Man Ray’s peripatetic nature and the volume of his multifaceted oeuvre is thus both a blessing and a curse for a curator — so much ground to cover, so many directions. The Man Ray Trust, the source of this exhibition, has catalogued more than 4,000 works, of which more than 400 are displayed in Tokyo. The show’s Japanese subtitle, “Shirazaru Sosaku no Himitsu,” is less prosaic but to the point, translating as “The Unknown Secrets of (Man Ray’s) Creativity.” Separated into four sections corresponding to the work he did in New York (1890-1921), Paris (1921-40), Los Angeles (1940-51) and again in Paris (1951-76), the exhibition presents not only an expansive overview of his output, both famous and rare, but also a collection of the artist’s touchstones of inspiration.

For Rayophiles, it must be a voyeuristic pleasure to rummage through his detailed index cards and studio closets, watch his home movies and essentially get inside his head. For visitors less familiar with his work, though, the huge jumble might lack the necessary curatorial glue. So neophytes beware: It’s a bit like listening to outtakes of a classic album, more appreciated after you’ve heard the real thing.

Along the lines of his epitaph, Man Ray vacillated between furrow-browed absolutes and silly-hat flippancy. While he showed and associated with major Surrealists and Dadaists, he avoided factions and subscribing to group manifestos. He was also wary of committing to one medium. Although a major innovator in photography, he titled a book of his work “Photography Is Not Art” and long desired to be known for his work in painting. Then again, when wooing Kiki, he boasted about the power of his lens: “I make shadows. I make light. I can make anything with my camera.”

Unlike many of his artistic peers, Man Ray actually did make good money with his camera, primarily as the resident photographer of Europe’s cultural elite, as well as a much-sought-after photographer for major fashion magazines. The long list of names that posed for him — Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky — is impressive, but the series of similarly posed photos at the National Art Center is not particularly inspiring or representative of Man Ray’s true talents.

It was in the avant-garde that Man Ray excelled, with his boundary-busting techniques and off-the-cuff juxtapositions. As with his rayograms and solarized photos, he subverted conventional filmmaking by placing objects directly onto celluloid to create the revolutionary “Le Retour a la raison,” which is shown along with several of his short films. Both predating the Surrealists and raising the ante on Duchamp’s readymades, he created extraordinary visions from staged collisions of ordinary objects.

Man Ray himself clearly thrived when juxtopsed with like-minded artists, writers and muses. This is apparent when seeing the creative output of his Paris years alongside that of his time in L.A., where he lacked stimulus and appreciation.

While Man Ray’s many amores are on display, his second wife, Juliet, gets the last word here. Featured in numerous portraits, in a screened documentary she recounts little anecdotes about her husband, seated in their final residence in Paris, a fantastically cluttered studio-apartment that stands a testament to art as life. It’s here, that we really see into the mind into the original mash-up artist, who once said about his work, “It’s all one thing in the end — giving restlessness a material form.”

“Man Ray: Unconcerned but Not Indifferent,” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, runs until Sept. 13; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Tues. For more information see www.nact.jp/english/exhibitions/ 2010/manray.html